Evolution of the Species (Yes, You!)

Maybe it happened early to you. You were just learning about wine and still had quite an open mind, not to mention palate, and were trying all sorts of things. Some wines, as they are now, were better than others, and as you began to home in on what you liked, you came across something that just did not sit well with you.

It was probably quite sweet, and it was probably off-cherry color (which now you know as rosé), or maybe it was white. Either way, you did not care for the cloying sugar-quality of the taste. And the nose was not attractive. So there was nothing about that wine to entice you to try it again … ever.

But in all fairness to your experience, and I want you to now reflect back on that, when you are just starting out, you are not drinking the “good stuff.” No one begins their wine journey with first growths from Bordeaux or with grand crus from Burgundy. At that point in your education, those beverages may have been appreciated, but given their price and scarcity, the only person who would have shared those with you would probably have been a parent. They love you and want the best for you. Friends and acquaintances back then could hit your Happy Button for much less money.

Yet here we are today, and now is now. You are more worldly, an experienced lover of fine wine, someone who can understand and differentiate the plonk from a pre-eminent vintage. Still, you have in the back of your mind that you do not like, dare I say the word, Riesling. It’s just too sweet.

Better hurry up, my friend, because the train is leaving the station, and you are not on it.

Riesling is the fastest-growing wine varietal in America today. And this Riesling is not your mama’s, and it’s not the one you had eons ago. This is some good juice, and, although most of the better releases are just a teeny little on the sweet side, the wine is dry.

Bit of a side-trip here: In wine parlance, “dry” means wine in which all the sugars contained in the fruit have been fully vinified, which means converted into alcohol. There is no sugar left in a dry wine. But that does not mean the wine is not sweet.

In Riesling’s case, the grapes themselves in their DNA possess sweet characteristics and so will appear on the palate to contain sugar. Rieslings’ taste to humans is a soft sweetness, alongside wonderful fresh fruit, with honeysuckle, peach, and tremendous mineral (slate-like) texture.

Today’s Riesling’s are actually, in many cases, drier (less sweet) than most of the chardonnay being sold in this country. 

The really neat thing about the Rieslings on the market now is that they are from everywhere. Yes, Germany and even Austria still put out the classic styles with wonderful depth and quality. Certain Rieslings from Germany are bone-dry and are marked Trocken and Halb-Trocken.

Then there are Rieslings from the New World, with New Zealand doing some absolutely phenomenal vintages alongside their South Island pinot noirs. Consider the Land of Oz also, Australia, for incredible Rieslings at good value.

But the super-surprises are the Rieslings from Washington State. Here are some excellent values, as well as some beautiful expressions of the grape. Also, we are seeing the rise of the American palate (fodder for a future column), and if you have one of those, then maybe a product from the USA would be quite satisfactory.

Rather than make you write in and ask what the heck I mean by an American palate, it is a preference for heavy, fruit-forward wines, higher in alcohol, with strong finishes.

Another point about Riesling –– and this is often overlooked in all the recent excitement –– is that it is a wine that is excellent with a wide variety of cuisines. Asian food absolutely sings when paired with Riesling, and fresh seafood really takes off, with all the flavors of the sea in evidence.

Our very own Creole cuisine fares very well with this versatile wine. The reason is not just the delightful soft fruit that Riesling provides, complementing what’s on the plate, but also the acid in the finish of the wine. All good food wines have the acid in common, and Riesling is a member of this family that brings structure and long finish even when paired with seemingly impossible food combinations.

The point of it all is that despite your earlier turn-off to Riesling, it’s time for a re-visit. But this time, enjoy a fine wine, not the stuff of earlier adventures.

As you can tell, I’m pretty excited about Riesling. It’s another opportunity to travel the world, tasting a product from another place and another time, without ever leaving the Crescent City. But if you truly want to go to the wine’s country of origin, just let me know. Maybe we can get a group rate.

Recommended Rieslings (modern styles)
Jacob’s Creek Riesling, 2009, Southeastern Australia
Weingut St. Urbans-Hof,  2007, Mosel, Germany
Chateau St. Michelle, 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington state
Trefethen, 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California
Trimbach, 2008, Ribeauville, Alsace, France
Bird in Hand, 2008, Woodside, South Australia
Palliser Estate, 2008, Martinborough, New Zealand

The Wine Show with Tim McNally airs every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.

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